EDITORIAL: Back-to-school during COVID-19 an all-new lesson

Throughout the pandemic, public health officials have tried to manage risk; here’s the next one

Any new school year brings unknowns for students, whether they’ve been dreading back-to-school, excited about it or a little bit of both.

This year’s fall-semester blank slate, however, is not like other years.

Students, parents, teachers, school support staff and administrators are probably experiencing some unfamiliar sentiments about back-to-school this month. All of us have a stake and could reasonably have concerns, as the spread of COVID-19 in school corridors will surely make its way elsewhere.

The B.C. government received criticism last week for new back-to-school ads showing provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry teaching a physically distanced group of students the three-B mantra: Be Kind. Be Calm. Be Safe.

“It is an unrealistic depiction of what schools will look like,” said the B.C. Teachers’ Federation president, arguing that small groups and physical distancing aren’t the ministry’s plan.

“Learning groups” of students will number 60 to 120; class sizes will be the same as other years; cohorts will show cracks; bubbles will pop. Based on what we know or remember from our school days, it seems a stretch that the kind of physical distancing that’s expected nowadays can happen in classrooms, corridors and the schoolyard. At the same time, those are the places where we know life learning happens, where friendships are made, where school communities and connections are created that kids deserve to experience.

Health and safety best practices have changed a little bit as the pandemic has progressed. We saw one version of back-to-school this past June, though attendance was relatively low, and remote learning happened in ways that won’t be an option for students this semester.

This new back-to-school will have fuller classrooms, and the government is counting on the ability of all involved to keep the facilities clean and make an effort to maintain physical and social distance. B.C., like all the other jurisdictions setting out on a fall semester, has to make some of this up as it goes along in unprecedented times.

Provincial health officials have demonstrated to us that they’ve been “modelling” the pandemic’s spread, and have managed risk, and here’s the next one.

B.C.’s back-to-school plan is only going to work if everyone is willing to learn how to make it work. There are going to be hard lessons, but we have dedicated teachers and staff, and we have bright kids.

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